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BOOK EXCERPT

5.21.99  
How Mary Ellen Sheets Fell into the Macho Moving Business
Excerpts from Women Entrepreneurs Only: 12 Women Entrepreneurs Tell the Stories of Their Success

Book  CoverOn a quiet springtime Sunday in East Lansing, Michigan, a well-groomed woman on a pink moped was on the way to deposit $7,000 in the 24-hour slot at the local bank when her bag of cash and checks flew off the back of the bike. In retrospect, the two-wheeled entrepreneur chuckles over the episode, but at the time one frantic lady was running around, chasing the receipts for her business. "They were a weekend's receipts," Mary Ellen Sheets recalls. "Once we got going no one could believe how much money we made."

In fact, her entire situation was slightly unbelievable. A woman, whose day job was data systems analyst for the State of Michigan, was running, of all things, a local moving business, an industry in which no women were viable, nor were they welcome.

Initially, her company, Two Men and a Truck, consisted of Mary Ellen moonlighting out of her condo apartment and her mother's back porch. Actually, the first two "men" were teenagers -- Mary Ellen's sons, one just old enough to drive, both trying to earn spending money. This is how she describes the beginning:

I became, to my surprise, a single mother, all of the sudden divorced, with two sons and a daughter. The boys wanted to earn their own spending money, and I tried to help them. When their father left, he left an old green pickup truck that we bought from Michigan State University. The school used it on the campus ground. The boys wanted to use it to move people, so I put a little ad in our local shopping guide, and thatÕs how it all started. The first line of the ad was Two Men and A Truck, though they weren't men. Brig, the older, was just 16, and John was 13. I also made a form for the boys so they could track of things -- people's addresses, what they wanted moved. I sat down a the kitchen table and drew a logo on top of the moving sheet. It's still our logo, a stick figure, black-and-white drawing of the front of a truck with two people sitting in front. It was a silly moving sheet. On the list of items to move, I included an elephant.

The boys charged $25 an hour, and every time they moved someone they had to put three dollars in a little dish in the kitchen to buy gas. They split the rest, which was pretty good spending money for kids. After they both went off to college, the phone calls still kept coming in. It's amazing how the name caught on and people took it to heart. So I decided to buy a used truck, very used, and continue the moving. It was in May, 1985, and the truck cost $350. I advertised in the local paper and hired two men at $10 an hour. I let them know each day whether they had a moving job and paid them in cash every night.

May Ellen Sheets was an accidental entrepreneur who practiced just-in-time learning, staying one step ahead of the consequences of any missteps that were the result of not knowing the rules and regulations. You can say her moving business just happened, but you can't say she was not equipped for business. Her work as a systems analyst prepared her to design an efficient and well-organized moving system. Her stint as an office manager had developed administrative skills. She knew how to analyze numbers and deal with data. Her volunteer work handling the phones in a hospital crisis-intervention center honed skills in dealing with people on the phone. In developing Two Men and A Truck, she emerged as a smart, savvy, hard-working entrepreneur who identified opportunity and went where it took her - from local mover to national franchiser.

In one sense, her success was cumulative, not really haphazard. Built on unbridled ambition? Not at all. Bottom line-focused? Only as necessary. At the end of her first year in business, she shelled up $1000 in profits and gave it all away in 10 charity donations so she wouldn't have to deal with taxes. Committed? Unquestionably -- and she remembers distinctly the upsetting night she became aware of her commitment:

Several years ago, while we were limited to local moving, a man phoned after we had damaged his furniture. He just got madder and madder, I tried to calm him down, using skills I had learned as a counselor who listened to people on the phone. When someone is really upset, let them unload and they will calm down. But it didn't work with him. He just got madder. Finally, he said that he was on the going to call the local newspaper and tell them what a terrible company we were.

It was quite late a tonight and it left me so shaken that I called my brother. I told him, "I'm just so upset. This guy's gonna ruin my business," and my brother said, "Mary Ellen, sell that stupid business. You've got a good job, work at it."

I got so mad at my brother. It was like: "Are you crazy? I'm not selling this business." I realized then that I really loved the business. Once the business got started, I tweaked it here and there and saw it improve. I just tried to do something everyday to make it a little better. I just loved it. Owning a business is like owning the greatest toy in the world.

By instinct more than design, Mary Ellen was developing a niche in the moving industry with a distinctive formula that would make her the country's only franchiser of local movers and owner of the fourth-largest U.S. residential moving company. She had stumbled onto a major market, which is largely ignored by big moving companies. About 40 million individuals or families move in the United States each year, and almost half of the moves are strictly local. The fixed overhead of large companies makes the local moving market difficult and expensive for them. They have big expensive trucks and storage facilities to maintain and ICC licenses and state permits to deal with. They also have substantial costs of sales forces and national advertising.

On the marketing angle alone, Mary Ellen Sheets soon discovered a selling edge -- the sight of her trucks. People started to call in from their car phones, intrigued by the name on the side of a truck they were following. Her simple black logo and her company name on a white background carried the implicit message: "We're a low-overhead, hometown, family-style operation. We're not big, busy, and expensive."

The image worked, and it was true. Mary Ellen's billing formula was customer friendly. Instead of charging by weight (as was standard), she charged by the hour, which made her prices highly competitive. Two Men and A Truck did not reimburse the customer at the paltry industry standard of $0.60 per pound for damage; it made sure the damage was fixed to the customer's satisfaction.

As the business got going, Mary Ellen made sure her movers didn't share the stereotyped reputation of local movers as muscle men wearing dirty undershirts, sporting tattoos of dancing girls in grass skirts. She cleaned up the image of her moving men. They arrive on time, introduce themselves, look neat and clean and behave in a friendly, polite manner. Her trucks are impeccable and, after the first bumpy years, in good running condition. She recalls the first time she decided to upgrade to a new truck:

After my first year, I decided to buy a new truck. I went to the local Chevy dealer, I was so nervous. I didn't know if he would sell a woman a truck. But they were very nice and did sell me a truck. When I went to pick it, it wouldn't run! I went to another Chevy dealer and bought my truck there. Then I bought a new truck every year. Every time I did, my business would increase. It was another moving billboard on the street, complete with name and phone number.

After Mary Ellen was in business for two years, her movers would sometimes go beyond city limits to move customers north to Travers City, even to Detroit or Ohio. This brought her face-to-face with the complexities of governmental regulation and led to a characteristic Mary Ellen Sheets solution. State police stopped one of her trucks for not having a license for out-of-town moving, defined as going seven miles out of any municipality. During her lunch hours, Mary Ellen, who was still working downtown, visited four different attorneys who specialized in transportation law: "I asked them if they could explain the law to me, and they all gave me different answers. It was just crazy, and they probably thought I was crazy. So what I did was take a soup can and use it to draw a circle on a city map of Lansing. I told my drivers not to go outside the circle."

By the time she switched in 1989 from running a local moving company in Lansing to franchising, the Two Men and A Truck formula was refined and ready to roll out all over the country in one town or city after another. Still, she hesitated over franchising until she participated in a business panel:

Someone at Michigan State University asked me if I would join a panel discussion about business. There was another lady there who, when she heard about my moving business, told me I should franchise it. I told her that I didn't know how I could, since all I had was the truck and the moving men. She had a pet feeding service, and she said: "Well, all I do is feed dogs, so for God's sake if I can franchise you can, too." So she gave me the name of her attorney. I went to see him and told him all about my business, and he said he would help me franchise it. I didn't even know what franchising was. He charged me something like $27,000 which I paid over time out of the money from my Lansing operation. I read all those stories about people investing $200,000 and $300,000 to get a franchising company started. We never had that kind of money.

As everyone knows, moving and trucking are mostly men's business, but I didn't let it make any difference to me. I went my own way and re-invented the wheel. We did our own thing and we benefited from word of mouth, which is how most of our franchises were sold.

In converting her business from local mover to national franchiser, Mary Ellen kept overhead to a minimum, operating out of her apartment and handling the administrative details herself. She finally quit her job to plunge into franchising. It wasn't until 1993 that she moved out of the apartment to an office in an old house, and 1998 when the company moved into a new building it had put up for nearly $600,000.

To get help in running the company, Mary Ellen didn't have to look far. Her daughter, Melanie, who was a well-paid pharmaceutical rep, quit her job to join her mother in 1994. She had a strong track record in marketing and already knew the moving business as moonlighting owner of a company franchise in Detroit. In 1994, Melanie became company president, an ideal match for CEO Mary Ellen. Mind-the-store daughter works with creative, idea-generating mother -- the two traits that build in longevity for start-up companies. She describes her mother as the quintessential "free spirit who enjoys life and does what she wants to do." But also someone who "knows how to make tough decisions."

Although Mary Ellen owns the company, business decisions are a family affair, involving mother, daughter, and the original movers, sons Brig and Jon -- the company's board of directors. Brig works full-time at headquarters as a franchise recruiter for the company, while Jon has a franchise in Grand Rapids and also runs his mother's Lansing franchise.

The four of them meet every week to discuss the business. The consensus approach and the checks and balances of the four family members have carried Two Men and A Truck passed the pitfalls of many entrepreneurial companies that achieve early momentum and falter in the later stages as they stabilize their operations.

Gregory K. Ericksen is the National Director of Entrepreneurial Services of Ernst & Young, which provides tax, business advisory and consulting services for domestic and global clients. He is also Chairman of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Institute. He is also the author of What's Luck Got to Do With It?: 12 Entrepreneurs Reveal the Secrets Behind Their Success (Wiley; 1997).

Reprinted with permission from
Women Entrepreneurs Only: 12 Women Entrepreneurs Tell the Stories of Their Success by Gregory K. Ericksen
Copyright 1999 by Ernst & Young LLP
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Adapted with permission of the author and John Wiley & Sons, Inc. May not be modified, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any manner.
Title available from bookstores, online retailers, and from the publisher at www.wiley.com or by calling 1-800-225-5945

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